Samford University The BelltowerJuly 2004

Collins Grows at Samford, Values Interior Life

“…Visiting a Trappist monastery as a bookish undergraduate, seeing the monk’s life of scholarship and prayer, Samford Political Science professor Bill Collins thought, ‘This is what I want to do’…”

Perhaps because political science professor Bill Collins lives much of his life on the inside, he was almost completely surprised to be honored with the first annual Howard College of Arts and Sciences Award for Teaching Excellence. He admits that his suspicions were raised when his department chair, Fred Shepherd, showed up to personally escort him to the February Arts and Sciences faculty meeting at which the award was announced. “I figured that’s a little bit over the top to get me to the faculty meeting,” Collins said.

A committee of seven faculty members--all of whom are previous recipients of Samford’s Buchanan or Macon teaching awards--selected Collins based on nominations from the Arts and Sciences faculty and senior undergraduate students. “That was very, very nice,” Collins said of the honor. “It pleased me very much.” He clearly takes a quiet, thoughtful and genuinely humble pleasure in the award that recognized him for simply doing what he feels he should do. It’s the response one would expect of a man preparing himself for the monastic life that for decades has called to Collins.

The Draftee

Visiting a Trappist monastery as a bookish undergraduate, seeing the monk’s life of scholarship and prayer, Collins thought, “This is what I want to do.” “But,” he now recalls, “I just didn’t have the spiritual maturity to live that way.” Lacking specific plans after graduating from Florida State University with a classics degree in the mid 1960s, Collins found that his government was happy to offer some direction. “I went out and frolicked and got stuck,” he said. “I got drafted.”

“I was very much a civilian before, during and after,” Collins said of his three years of service in naval intelligence in the Gulf of Tonkin, which is not to suggest that he had much more direction upon his discharge in 1968 than he had as a new draftee. Released into a dramatically changed U.S. culture, he said he did little else but “what 23-year-old kids with no brains and a little bit of money and a lot of freedom do.” Finally, he answered the call of scholarship, returned to his alma mater and immersed himself in academic research.

The Misfit

Joining Samford’s combined Department of History and Political Science in 1987, Collins was a bit of a misfit--a devout Catholic researcher at a Baptist university known primarily for its dedication to teaching, a single father commuting 180 miles a day to a university known for the closeness of its community. Collins also assumed he would leave Samford someday to pursue his research without the encumbrance of so much teaching responsibility. “I was very focused on myself, my career and accumulating academic prestige and money,” he said. “I was doing this reasonably well, and all this just sort of cracked open and didn’t happen the way I imagined it would.”

Days turned to months and years; Collins remained at Samford, excelled as a teacher and finally realized that although his goals had not been met, they’d been the wrong goals. “I kind of grew up here, in a way,” he said. His was the slow growth of introspection, aided by his former department chair Don Wilson and other Samford colleagues who trusted him, brought out the best in him and prevented him from simply passing through Samford on the way to somewhere and something else.

Although Collins can’t point to a single moment of revelation, and detests sentimentality, he does remember one event as especially representative of what Samford means to him. “My son passed away a couple of years ago,” he said, “and the people who I did not think I knew very well were unbelievably supportive.” He said philosophy professor Dennis Sansom was an especially important friend among many who were uplifting rather than maudlin. “It moved me enormously.”

The Monk

As Bill Collins begins to consider what he might do after retiring from Samford, he thinks he may finally be ready for monasticism. By the time his 19-year-old daughter has completed college and is off on her own, he expects to know if he will enter a Benedictine monastery. It is an intense life not lightly taken up by the prospective monk or casually approved by the monks he seeks to join. It is not an escape from the problems of the world, not a spiritual spa and not a resting place at the end of an academic career. Rather, Collins said, it is a challenging life because it is free of distraction, an intense life because “it’s all lived on the inside.”

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